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Headphone companies: no headphone jack, no problem

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audeze sine versus oppo pm3 Vlad Savov

This week Apple launched a new iPhone without a headphone jack and stirred up an understandable furor of discontent. But you won’t hear any headphone companies complaining about the move, even though it takes away their familiar entry point into the Apple ecosystem. Most of them have already been preparing for this change for months, and those who haven’t don’t particularly care about plugging into an iPhone in the first place. I spoke with a few of the major headphone manufacturers in the wake of Apple’s announcement to gauge their reaction to the news.

Read next: Our iPhone 7 and 7 Plus review

The universal response has been a mix of sunny optimism, some of it perhaps forced by the lack of alternatives, and practicality. Most companies are ambivalent about the consumer effect of the iPhone 7 change, but all of them recognize that there's plenty of opportunity in having a company the size of Apple making noise around their industry and products.

sennheiser momentum

Sennheiser is one of the best-known names in the personal audio world, and with good reason. This company’s range spans everything from the most affordable $20 in-ear and over-ear designs to the marble-encased $55,000 Orpheus system. Here’s what co-CEOs Daniel and Andreas Sennheiser had to say about the Lightning-only iPhone:

"Sennheiser has seen many different connection standards come and go in the audio world over the years. Audio connections have always been continuously evolving. Digital outputs, such as Apple's Lightning connector, will offer new opportunities to take a step forward and to further enhance the sound experience for the customer. For example, 3D audio technology using digital signals is just one possibility."

To Sennheiser, Apple’s hardware change is just another opportunity. Being pushed into developing Lightning headphones is a challenge that the German company is embracing, and it’s already thinking about ways to exploit that digital connector’s greater capabilities over the classic analog standard. That’s the thing I’d have liked to see Apple do — give people a reason to want Lightning headphones specifically — but as tends to be the case, it’s looking like the third-party accessory makers will solve the problem for Apple. And let’s not forget that while Lightning is a promise for the future, Bluetooth is something that almost every audio manufacturer has already embraced, and Sennheiser has a popular line of Momentum wireless cans to sell to iPhone buyers looking for an upgrade.

Even more enthusiastic about wireless audio is Jaybird, maker of the popular X2 sport earphones. Rory Dooley, Jaybird’s general manager for (cringe) Audio Wearables, sees Apple ditching the headphone jack as merely an affirmation of an ongoing trend:

"Apple has confirmed what we’ve all known all along: the world is going wireless. And even though you might not know it now, you’ll love your digital audio experience without all the wires. Apple’s new design, coupled with advancements in wireless headphones and Bluetooth technology, will dramatically improve the audio experience for all and lead to a freer listening & interaction experience."

I have heard Jaybird’s sentiment echoed by a number of my colleagues who’ve already made the transition to using only wireless headphones. The people who make the switch keep underlining that the greater convenience outweighs the irritation of having to recharge a headset. And they’re all hopeful that issues around pairing and maintaining a constant signal can be consigned to history. Jaybird, though, is just glad it can sell more Bluetooth gear, which has a much higher average selling price (and presumably fatter profit margin) than wired headphones.

NPD’s latest data, covering the first half of this year, showed that Bluetooth cans commanded 54 percent of US dollar sales, in spite of accounting for only 17 percent of unit sales. That means people are much more willing to spend a higher price for wireless convenience than the less defined benefits of, say, better audio quality or high-grade materials and construction. What’s more, Bluetooth headphone sales are growing at six times the rate of the entire headphones category in the US, indicating that Apple is indeed jumping on (and amplifying) a rising tide.

audio-technica

Another of the world’s most reputable headphone makers, Japan’s Audio-Technica, is ready to respond to whatever we, the consumers, want from it. Marketing director Robert Morgan-Males appreciates Apple’s inclusion of an adapter with the new iPhone and feels confident about Audio-Technica’s Bluetooth offerings:

"The fact that Apple are providing the adapter with new iPhone 7 means that, although people have something else now to lose, no one will miss out and can still enjoy their own choice of quality wired headphones. We will continue to offer some of our headphone range with Bluetooth options such as the new SR5BT with a 38 hour battery life (and a cable in the box).

"Pushing the edge of wireless headphone technology has been and remains an important pillar of our headphone development and you can expect to see exciting developments from Audio-Technica."

The latter note from Audio-Technica, teasing more Bluetooth products, is an undercurrent I’ve picked up from all of my discussions with mainstream headphone makers. If it wasn’t already apparent that purses would open wider for wireless headphones than wired, Apple just made it abundantly obvious. The iPhone is simply going to turbocharge efforts and investments into better wireless cans. Or at least more of them — the trend in Bluetooth headphones is actually toward falling prices, so I’m not holding out any great hope for better, but there’ll certainly be a very wide variety of choice.

Going to the more boutique, high-end audio companies, I find that even they are now toying with the idea of going wireless. Torque is a small US company that builds modular headphones and fancies itself as a premium brand that wants to "eventually create a price-accessible line for a broader audience including other media devices outside of iOS." But, says company co-founder Yasu Yamamoto, "with the upcoming changes to the iOS platform, we’ll take it as an opportunity to expand our line. On the wireless front [...] we’ve finalized a concept and are ready to get it towards production and IP protection."

For AudioQuest, a company that makes its living by selling over-engineered cables and a portfolio of audio products highlighted by the excellent DragonFly DAC (digital-to-analog converter) family, things are a little more nuanced. "Currently, it means DragonFly Black and Red are going to see an uptick in sales," says Steve Silberman, vice president of product development at the company. As he sees it, "you’ll have people who just see this as an opportunity to upgrade their existing headphones or add a Lightning-compatible DAC and headphone amp." AudioQuest’s USB-sized DragonFly units plug in via Apple’s Lightning-to-USB adapter and can be powered by an iPhone. More intriguing for the company, though, is the anticipated boom in audio accessories designed specifically for Lightning:

"The Lightning-to-3.5mm adaptor does in fact seem like more of a temporary solution. In a few years time, we can all suppose that the Lightning headphone and DAC categories will be ubiquitous."

This bullishness on Lightning audio hardware is backed up by two important factors. One, noted by Tim Cook during Apple’s iPhone launch event on Wednesday, is that there are now 900 million Lightning devices out in the world. That’s a massive market waiting to be tapped, and the second factor here is that high-end audio companies are already addressing this audience. Audeze has asserted itself as the undisputed leader in Lightning audio with sets of over-ear (EL-8 Titanium), on-ear (Sine), and in-ear (iSine 10 and 20) Lightning headphones. I’ve tested them all and they sound beautiful, with the integrated DAC, amplifier, and digital signal processor in Audeze’s Cipher cable setting a fine example for Lightning accessory makers to follow.

Read more: Five reasons you'll want Lightning headphones for your iPhone 7

Of course, not everyone needs to be riding Apple’s new bandwagon. Grado is one of the most idiosyncratic companies in all of tech, a family business that’s still making headphones in the same Brooklyn manufactory where it began decades ago, and its fans have actually told the company not to change a thing. Jonathan Grado explains:

"To be honest, we don’t care much one way or another. We really just care that we can keep a sound that we’re proud of. We just want whatever connection is used to keep the sound that our family’s worked 63 years for. There aren’t any major changes to Grado because of this, and we’ll continue doing what’s kept us around for so long."

In totality then, the headphone industry is surprisingly indifferent about the 3.5mm jack bearing its name. The old stalwarts are already familiar with adapters, since there’s also a 6.35mm connector, the modernist innovators are cutting their teeth on Lightning accessories already, and the mass market providers are investing themselves into Bluetooth as the logical next connectivity standard.

You never know, maybe all this talk about 3.5mm, Lightning, or USB-C might turn out to be something like the HD-DVD versus Blu-ray wars of the past. By the time the physical interconnect battles are all straightened out, the wires themselves might have become superfluous and wireless streaming might have taken over. In any case, the message from headphone manufacturers is that they’ll have a diversity of solutions to Apple’s newly created 3.5mm problem.


Audeze iSine 10 and 20 first look